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Cornucopia of Donations Available to the Poor

From toothbrushes to toys, a resource bank offers excess inventory, seized items to charities.

November 24, 2002|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

What to do with the cheeseheads was a real puzzler, admitted Anita Morales -- and Morales, distribution manager for the nonprofit Shelter Partnership, has had to contend with plenty of unusual offers to the agency's donation center over the years.

There were the hand-crank ice cream makers, deemed impractical for the people -- most of them homeless and poor -- who benefit from the center's largess. The inflatable rafts were also a no go. As was the offer of a few tons of lumber.

But the cheeseheads -- 12 cases of the foam headgear worn so absurdly by Wisconsin football fans and other fashion-challenged sportsters -- were accepted and given to an agency that helps low-income families. They ended up as toys for needy kids.

"That was an interesting project," said Morales, standing in the shadows of the 80,000-square-foot warehouse in Bell that houses the donation center. She was helping the warehouse supervisor, Jerry Ayala, with the arrival of 74,000 hairbrushes donated by Procter & Gamble.

The load -- about 500 cases -- would not be the largest in the resource bank. A few yards away were 16 big-rig loads of toothbrushes, and around the corner were 100,000 cases of personal care items donated by Neutrogena.

Several years ago, the group got about 750,000 razors from Gillette, recalled Shelter Partnership Executive Director Ruth Schwartz. "It was the first large-scale donation like that," she said. "The razors were pink, but men will use pink razors if they don't have anything else."

The Shelter Partnership was formed in 1985 with the help of then-Mayor Tom Bradley and the United Way to offer technical assistance, research and resources to providers of services for homeless and poor people in Los Angeles County.

In 1989, the partnership established the resource bank, a clearinghouse for donated goods -- mostly excess inventory but also confiscated merchandise and counterfeits -- that charitable agencies can tap into without cost.

Recently, the resource bank achieved a milestone, having secured since its opening $100 million worth of -- among other things -- new clothing, toys, shampoo, blankets, dental floss, detergent, toilet paper, mattresses, office supplies, bed linens, CDs, eyebrow pencils. And, of course, the cheeseheads.

The operation, run by donation manager Kris Ockershauser and four warehouse employees, is daunting. The warehouse is part of a federal complex and was constructed during World War II to store parts for the Air Force, Schwartz said.

A railroad line runs behind the building, but these days products are delivered in trucks that rumble up to the large loading bays.

Items are distributed quarterly, based on the needs of individual agencies, which must be qualified, tax-exempt charities.

A computerized inventory keeps track of what comes in and goes out and the value of the merchandise. The charities must agree not to resell or exchange the goods for money.

This is important because the products are new, not used or damaged castoffs.

A few years ago the group got 90,000 pairs of counterfeit Guess jeans that could have retailed for thousands of dollars on the street. It was able to distribute them with Guess' permission after a tiny button with the fake label was snipped off.

Once, the Los Angeles Police Department donated a load of quality knock-off tuxedos, which were given to a local high school for youths unable to afford graduation finery.

The Shelter Partnership is talking to customs officials about more confiscated clothing and other goods that would otherwise be destroyed.

The agency is also talking to port officials about items that -- because of the recent dockworker strike -- might be unloaded too late to be sold for Christmas. Schwartz said the group had learned of a shipment of Halloween costumes that sat on the docks and could, for example, be stored for next year.

Businesses that contribute inventory to the resource bank can receive special tax benefits and free floor space for new inventory, said Ricardo Villanueva Jr., president of G & M Mattress & Foam, which donates unused mattresses each month.

The resource bank is just across the railroad tracks from the Commerce-based mattress company, whose founder -- Ricardo Sr. -- adopted the group and began throwing Christmas parties for homeless kids.

"The big deal is being able to see the face of people," said Ricardo Jr. "You can donate as much as you want, but seeing the reactions of people makes a big difference."

The warehouse is like a cavernous thrift shop. Next to the stacked mattresses are cases of blankets, boxes of stylish silver trash canisters, children's comforters with Disney cartoon characters, "Star Wars" action figures, even a case of Harley-Davidson motorcycle bags.The center once got 700 sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica worth more than $1 million, which benefited school-age children at several agencies.

But for many, just a bottle of shampoo is a luxury.

"It's great to come in here and get something to keep my body clean," said Carolyn Chappell, who was at the Downtown Women's Center to get a bite and use the showers. She lives near skid row and sometimes sleeps on the streets.The women get a kit of lotions, soap, toothpaste and other items recently picked up from the resource bank. "I especially love the shampoos and conditioners, because the make my hair smooth and shiny," Chappell said.

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